Fight or flight personality

Stress addiction

My childhood friend recently had a rough emotional time, this caused him to feel fatigued for several months. His approach to this fatigue was completely different from mine at the time. He stayed calm, didn’t push himself and slowly worked his way out of it again. Within four months he was back on track and exercised and worked full-time again. I have however always been a stressed person. My childhood was stressful and I thrived with stress. I loved thinking about theories to beat systems and problem solving was what I was best at. When I developed symptoms I was running a company and I wanted to work hard on it for at least 3 more years before I wanted to take it slower. That would have earned me enough money to buy a house with a big garden and secure my financial future. I kept on working and started the push and crash cycle. In the first 4 months of my fatigue I was incredibly sharp minded, I felt like Sherlock Holmes and I figured out lots of strategies to earn even more money. One day I would work many hours and the next day I felt horrible and I would plan all my strategies. At the end of that period, I noticed how I couldn’t relax anymore, my heartbeat was making me nervous and I didn’t know how to relax anymore. I started developing brain fog later and at times I even couldn’t remember my name anymore. I was now so tired and wired that I needed a full day of rest after only half a day of work. I felt even more stressed by symptoms and accepted some more big shows for me to star in. I pushed myself a little further and I have never earned so much money as the period I managed to work only 3 half days a week. I even moved places to a nice apartment in Amsterdam. After 10 months of having symptoms I had to stop working and it would take another 14 months for me to be able to stop being in the ‘fight or flight mode’ constantly. In those 14 months I had lost the ability to walk longer than 1 minute, to sleep longer than 2 minutes at a time, to speak sentences, to process anything that I heard or saw, like listening to my mum. I was so exhausted that in the end I only had one option left, to finally learn how to calm down. It was only when I started with that process that I started making some progress in my health. With ups and downs I have learned to calm down my nervous system and I am still in the process of learning. Nowadays when I feel tired, I can allow myself some high quality rest and when I really calm down and enter the rest and digest mode, I feel much better very fast. Sometimes I am exhausted and only twenty minutes of high quality rest rejuvenates me for the rest of the day. To start healing I needed to change my ‘fight or flight’ personality.

Adrenaline and cortisol addiction

The nervous system has roughly three states: freeze, ‘fight or flight’ and ‘rest and digest’. A balance between ‘fight or flight’ and ‘rest and digest’ is called homeostasis. You will have to learn to balance these two states again. The state of ‘freeze’ is the state that causes emotional trauma. When we experience an extremely difficult moment we can get stuck in the freeze mode. We won’t process the emotion anymore because the fight or flight response was not possible at that time. This means we don’t have a clear memory from what is haunting us. After many years this traumatic experience might trigger the ‘fight or flight mode’ to escape from it again and again. Being stuck in the ‘fight or flight mode’ will drain you and your adrenals. You have become addicted to adrenaline and cortisol. And in the long run this has lots of negative consequences. Stress is all you know and even in your healing journey, you have most likely prefered a stressful approach. Being stressed out has made you able to achieve great things in life. People with ME/CFS have the so-called type A personality, they are anything but lazy. You might keep on clinging to your adrenaline and cortisol addiction and your symptoms will stress you out even further. Stress has brought you a lot, but it will not bring you healing. Learning to calm down your nervous system on the other hand, will boost your adrenals faster than you might expect. Often people talk about good stress and bad stress. Especially people with illnesses like MS, ALS and autoimmune conditions believe that there can be good stress, as they usually develop a stressful personality. Gabor Mate explores this idea in his book called ‘When the body says no’. His conclusion is that stress is neither good nor bad, but too much stress will make it harder for your nervous system to return to homeostasis or balance. The inability to return to homeostasis will make you ill eventually.

The endless journey back to yourself

If you apply the ‘rest and digest’ mode over a longer period of time, I am sure you will come to see results. You will have to abandon your restless mind and the ‘fight or flight’ personality. Leave behind the coping mechanisms that once served you and that you are (still) unaware of. Practise mindfulness, start meditation, quit your smartphone addiction and calm down as best as you can. If you think you are relaxed, I am sure you can eventually find an even calmer state in the future. Again and again I have surprised myself with new discovered depths of relaxation. I am pretty sure this pattern will continue, as are all the things that I talk about, like emotional healing, emotional awareness, body awareness, thoughts awareness and mindfulness. What you are about to start is a journey that doesn’t have an end destination.